I once heard a minister say that his only God-given talent was the "gift of encouragement."
I had never really thought of encouragement as a gift, but I have since come to believe that it's right up there with the Big 2: gratitude and humility.
These traits are hard to appreciate when you're younger and intelligence and charm seem to be the best gifts. As you get older, though, you see that intelligence and charm sometime crab-walk into hubris and envy.
But "encouragement" - isn't that really what the Bible's Golden Rule is about, being a positive influence on others and not worrying too much yourself? Once you get your antenna up, searching for people with the gift of encouragement, they're easy to spot and special to behold.
A case in point: One morning last week, I was stewing about what to write about and feeling a bit stung by some who think this column is too introspective, too focused on personal matters. (Which is a reasonable observation and a useful caution to me to guard against hubris.)
My only defense, I guess, is that in my first 10 years as a columnist I almost never used a first-person point of view or expressed my opinions, focusing instead on the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. These people used to show up in my field of vision through a process that I still don't understand, but that I feel certain was not random. Looking back, I think it was God's way of teaching me about gratitude - giving me a front-row seat to the human experience, perhaps preparing me for what would come next for me - family life.
Anyway, the phone rang at my desk before 9 a.m. on Monday and on the other end of the line was Diane Williams, a 67-year-old North Georgia woman who began our conversation by saying she has been a newspaper subscriber for over 40 years. This is usually a precursor to an angry lecture, like a baseball pitcher's wind-up before throwing a fastball under your chin.
"Don't worry," she said, "it's nothing bad."
Williams explained that, in a recent family discussion about whether to continue subscribing to the Times Free Press, she listed the puzzles and this column on the "pro" side of the debate - which prevailed - and she just thought I should know that. Too, she said, she sometimes prays for me and my family if she senses we are experiencing a vulnerable moment.
Praying for strangers, I believe, is one of the purest forms of religious expression. I was lifted instantly by Williams' compliment. We realized together that encouragement is one of God's most precious gifts, and he sometimes uses each of us to deliver his pep talks.
Williams shared with me that she is a four-time cancer survivor, and that encouraging people is her way of thanking God for the gift of continued life.
Also last week, one of my great friends, Johnny Vass - who has also whipped cancer - retired from the Times Free Press.
Johnny, whether he knows it or not, has been a steadfast point of light during some dark times at the newspaper, and he exemplifies the gift of encouragement perhaps more than anyone I've ever known.
For instance, one of Johnny's jobs at the newspaper had been as curator of contest entries, and he's often the first to notify folks that they have won journalism awards. "And you deserved it," he often adds with a wink.
His relentless optimism will be deeply missed.
The best thing about the gift of encouragement is that it is free to anyone willing to subjugate their own ego and dedicate themselves to lifting up others. Anyone can decide - today - that the "gift of encouragement" will be their mission in life, their ministry.
Imagine how the world would be transformed if we all raised our hands on that one. Thinking of a world full of people like Johnny Vass and Diane Williams seems a lot like heaven, to me.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @ TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.